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Red Gravy adds St. Louis nuances to well-executed Italian food 

Appetite

click to enlarge Whether ravioli or tortelloni, this dish is excellent. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Whether ravioli or tortelloni, this dish is excellent.

The former Lucha Cantina storefront may still look unassuming under its new name, Red Gravy. Don't be fooled. Beyond the faux-urban decor of the quaint dining area, square footage abounds. A trip to the restrooms leads past an expansive private dining room, down a hallway that feels too long to fit in the building. In the basement, the Olive Branch's former bakery space churns out fresh focaccia, pizza dough and desserts. Red Gravy's chef Eric Brenner even occupies a completely untapped upstairs area that could host more people someday.

Brenner serves his guests refined-but-casual Italian food, with a little taste of home. In his case, home is St. Louis, Missouri, and its robust Italian scene, where he spent his first 10 years cooking.

"I could make you a graph of St. Louis," he says. "Neapolitan, Sicilian, Northern Italian, Venetian style — we have all different specialties."

Aside from grill-and-sauced barbecue, St. Louis' own regional foods haven't made a huge mark on the national culinary consciousness. But Brenner has been taking some pains to bring his favorite parts of home to the table, adjusting his menu based on customer feedback. Between visits, he tweaked two of the dishes I ordered and added sandwiches to the menu, necessitating a third visit for a light lunch. He's also importing ingredients from St. Louis, such as Provel cheese. It's a processed blend of cheddar, Swiss and provolone that's hard to find outside of that city, and a signature component in St. Louis-style pizza as propagated by the iconic Imo's Pizza.

Provel may be about as natural as cats on acid, but on the bacon and egg pizza, it's nothing to complain about. The oblong, square-sliced pizza greeted customers with slightly sweet house red sauce, pancetta and two fried eggs, over easy, all on a cracker-thin housemade crust. My crust came out a touch scorched, but that's my only issue with the food over three visits. And since those, Brenner has taken the recipe "to the next level," replacing pancetta with Italian sausage, Provel with goat cheese and red sauce with garlic-infused olive oil.

Red Gravy's butternut ravioli — recently reshaped into tortelloni — is already next level, slaying all pretenders to the stuffed pasta throne without mercy. This badass dish of butternut squash-filled pasta in a brown butter sauce with sage and baking spice suggests heavy autumnal flavors. But bright citrus zest inside the pasta balances the flavor, and the pistachio gremolata adds color and a little crunch besides. It's the only pasta made on-site right now, though Brenner plans on switching everything to house-made in the long term.

click to enlarge Chef Eric Brenner developed his cooking skills in the Italian kitchens of St. Louis. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Chef Eric Brenner developed his cooking skills in the Italian kitchens of St. Louis.

For appetizers, the pleasing gnocco fritto, or fried dumplings, see house pizza dough fried, wrapped in prosciutto and topped with sweet peppers. Dunk them, or your fork, or whatever you can get your hands on in the accompanying white bean hummus, a stupid-awesome bean dip with indulgent garlic flavor, sans raw-veg burn.

Red Gravy's tomato bisque comes from the recipe Brenner used to win Food Network reality show Guy's Grocery Games in December 2014. The creamy soup doesn't bury the tomatoes' acidity, and any herbs and milk serve to complement the richness of the tomatoes. Brenner swaps fried calamari for croutons in his Caesar salad. The seafood plays nice with the anchovy in the housemade dressing. Bonus: It comes in a chilled bowl, which Brenner and I agree should be the standard: "All the little details, I just think they matter," he says.

The meat in the chicken gnocchi comes breaded lightly and seasoned functionally, served atop marshmallow-chewy gnocchi and beefy bits of portabello mushroom. Considering the higher price — $16 versus $11 to $13 for pizza, pasta or sandwiches — it's not the most attractive option. Speaking of those sandwiches, the sausage and pepper sandwich gets a big, soft house bun and plenty of the slightly sweet house red sauce.

As for the house cocktails, the rum old fashioned looks cool under an ice sphere, but the Breckenridge spiced rum overwhelms bitters and fruit alike. For whiskey sour fans, the Fall from Grace mellows sweet Jameson with lime, orange and Earl Grey simple syrup for a nuanced take on the drink. A filthy dirty martini, though, crowns the menu, with a whisper of balsamic vinegar and a blue cheese-stuffed olive helping it elevate and enhance any hint of garlic, rosemary or tomato in the food.

An Urban Steam espresso blend comes out a little dark, though it works in the airy tiramisu. Blueberry gooey buttercake stands stronger on the dessert menu, a St. Louis trademark akin to an underbaked coffee cake. It sounds wrong, but in practice, it's oh so right. Lemon adds a nice acidity to the fresh blueberries for a polished bit of decadence. It's just one more smart decision in a long line of them, the product of the work Brenner has put into honoring all of the influences in Red Gravy's food.

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